September 5, 2016

BETWEEN BARS | Inside Maximum Security

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Photo Courtesy of Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph

Auburn Correctional Facility is less than an hour’s drive directly north of Ithaca, in a city whose population is comparable to that of total enrollment at Cornell. Sitting atop one of the Finger Lakes, it looks like any other town to pass by on the rolling hills of Upstate New York. But if obscurity has different degrees, Auburn is not a place without a name. It’s where Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman lived and died. It’s also home to one of the nation’s oldest prisons, one that pioneered the practice—the “Auburn system”—of daytime penal labor followed by solitary confinement at night, all under enforced silence.   

I’m at Auburn with Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), a program that brings Cornell faculty and students to teach and tutor inmates in nearby state prisons. I heard about CPEP through a professor who taught a course called “Prisons” last semester. Contrary to my initial expectations, the course wasn’t about prisons. It wasn’t even really about the content of ongoing debates on what to do about mass incarceration in America. Rather, the course was about the way policies, political symbols and public attitudes congeal to form the underlying logic of the carceral state.

One student in the course was a man who had served multiple years for drug offenses. He gave a guest lecture one class to talk about his past and the opportunity he received to obtain a college degree. I remember leaving class that day unsettled by the fact that up to that point, basically everything I had learned about crime and poverty and incarceration came from textbooks and not people. I wanted to know more.  Where do we even begin to “fix” our criminal justice system? How can we measure progress? I am curious to answer—and ask—these questions in new ways. This is why I am going to Auburn Correctional Facility every Thursday night this semester.  

I plan to use this blog as a space to process what I am seeing and learning through interacting with my students inside Auburn. It is also my hope that these experiences will help me to develop more opinionated and personal views regarding the ongoing developments in the national conversation about the criminal justice system. It is one thing to traffic in ideas about reform from the walls of a Cornell classroom, where the ability to articulate and analyze ideas are all that count. It is quite another to interact with people who are most affected by the implementation of these ideas. It is my hope that experience inside prison will provide me a first-hand perspective against which I can begin to listen more closely to where the conversation on prison reform is heading.

I am also aware that my involvement with CPEP may be controversial to some. Prison education has never been a commonplace privilege, much less a right, in our society. In 1994, President Clinton signed an omnibus crime bill that, amongst many other punitive measures, took away Pell Grant funding for inmates in pursuit of post-secondary correctional education (PSCE). Advocates of prohibition stressed that it was wrong to give out free college degrees to prisoners when hard-working, tax-paying Americans struggled to pay the bills for college. Proponents of federal funding for PSCE contended that education was a proven form of rehabilitation that significantly reduced recidivism by equipping incarcerated people with social skills, self-confidence, discipline and stronger employment prospects upon re-entry into society. Just this summer, President Obama announced a pilot program called Second Chance Pell that would have the effect of providing PSCE funding towards 12,000 inmates. Where PSCE is heading, however, is an open question.  

All this is to say that although the work I am doing may appear political, this blog series is not intended to deliver a political agenda–at least, I am not ready to do that now. I am not trying to further any agenda other than that of the validity of my own experiences. That is what I know I can write about.